When Can I Stop Wearing a Retainer after Braces?

Treatments & Care

Young female holding her orthodontic retainer

The question about throwing away your retainers is a common one. It’s understandable. Patients feel like they’ve been taking extra care of their teeth for years while they had braces and then with a retainer. They want to do away with it all and do nothing more than brush their teeth. But it’s not that simple. 

Retainers keep your teeth from moving. Teeth want to move back to their original position, even if they’ve been in their desired spot for many years. Changes tend to occur in the normal ageing dentition, such as the narrowing of the lower dental arch, this can lead to the crumpling up of the lower front teeth. These changes may not be a part of your original problem, and the only way to keep your teeth from moving around is to retain them. Many patients who had braces over 20 years ago will tell you they wish they had kept going with their retainers because their teeth moved leaving them with crooked or crowded teeth again. Often the movement happens within days and it’s impossible to shift the teeth back without more orthodontic work. 

When it Comes to Retainers Everyone is Different

There are a few variables with who wears retainers and for how long. Just like braces treatment, some people wear braces for a short time while others need them for years. Your treatment can determine the likelihood of teeth movement.  

There are some problems that when treated remain very stable even without wearing retainers, but crowding problems and an increased overbite are often more challenging to keep corrected. In other words, some patients’ teeth stay in position after wearing a retainer for only 12 months while other patients will have unwanted movement after many years of retainers.  

The only way to guarantee teeth won’t move from their desired position is to hold them in place with either fixed or removable retainers for as long as your orthodontist recommends.   

Permanent Retainers

Many orthodontic patients ask for a permanent (fixed) retainer the day we remove their braces to ensure their teeth stay in position. A thin wire at the back of your teeth is the only permanent method for keeping your teeth in place. As long as you have the wire repaired as soon as possible after any breaks, a fixed retainer is the easy option for keeping your teeth straight.

You can have fixed retainers on the top and bottom arches. Some patients choose a combination of fixed and removable retainers. Teeth on the bottom arch are more susceptible to movement, so fixed retainers on the bottom arch are more common than the top.   

FAQs About Fixed Retainers 

Will a Fixed Retainer Guarantee Me That My Teeth Won’t Move?

Unfortunately not, even teeth that are held with fixed retainers may move if they are not directly attached to the teeth or the retainer wire may be bent during chewing that may move the teeth. 

Are Fixed Retainers the Best Alternative?

It depends on the type of problem you had. It's very much a personal choice. If you think you might forget to wear removable retainers, now or in years to come, a fixed retainer is a good option.

Are There Any Downsides to a Permanent Retainer?

After having bulky braces, the thin wire of a permanent retainer is hardly noticeable. However, in the early days it can take a little time to get used to because it sits behind the teeth and can cause you to slur words. With some practice though your speech returns to normal. Any excess saliva you may notice in the early days will also settle down. 

Fixed retainers do need to be cleaned regularly with cleaning adjuncts like dental floss; otherwise you could experience an increase in plaque and tartar(dental calculus) and gum infections. Occasionally we have to remove the fixed retainer and provide a removable retainer that comes with the need for excellent cooperation. 

Removable Retainers

Thin, moulded clear plastic retainers are the most popular type of retainers after braces because they’re virtually invisible. Retainers are worn full time after braces and only removed to eat, drink and clean teeth. Once your orthodontist has checked your teeth, you’re given the all-clear to wear your retainers part-time, usually at night to keep teeth in place.

FAQs About Removable Retainers

Do Removable Retainers Need Much Care?

You will need to provide a little care for your removable retainer. Bacteria, plaque and food particles can build-up on retainers without proper cleaning.

Before putting retainers back in your mouth give them a rinse with warm (never hot) water. Once a week your retainers need a more thorough clean. Use a drop of dishwashing liquid and scrub the retainer with a soft bristle brush. Don’t use toothpaste as it’s abrasive and can scratch the retainer’s surface. 

Never eat or drink anything but water while wearing your retainers as you can break or discolour the retainers. If you break or lose your retainer, contact your Orthodontist to have a new one made as soon as possible.    

Can Removable Retainers Fix a Shift in Teeth?

If your retainer feels tight after missing a night or two, you can wear them continually for 24 hours, only removing them to eat, drink and clean your teeth. Once the tightness disappears, you can then wear them nightly but only do this after your orthodontist directs you to do so.

Retainers are made to hold teeth in place, not shift them. The thin plastic isn’t strong enough to move teeth. If your teeth have shifted a lot and your retainer isn’t fitting properly, you will need to make an appointment to see your orthodontist.  

Can I Take Out a Fixed Retainer If I No Longer Want It?

Most fixed retainers stay in for many years. They’re cemented to the back of the teeth similar to braces. If you want your fixed retainer removed, ask your dentist or orthodontist to do it for you but always consider how your teeth started out- if there were significant irregularities, it’s likely that there will be a tendency for the irregularity to recur. Have a frank discussion with your orthodontist about your individual circumstance as everyone is different.

You can read more at Will I Need to Wear a Retainer After Braces? Guide to Permanent Retainers.

Why Our Teeth Move

At some stage during their life, almost everyone will notice their teeth shift if they aren’t retained. There are several reasons why teeth shifting occurs.

The Ageing Process

As we age our teeth naturally move. Teeth have a tendency to move forward in the mouth and the lower set of teeth tend to narrow with age. Any crowding may cause functional and cosmetic problems. Crowded teeth may make it difficult to brush and floss effectively and patients may be more likely to experience plaque build-up. However, there are many patients who manage to clean even the most irregular teeth.

People often start noticing teeth movement in their 30s or 40s when the supports that keep teeth in place start breaking down. The support is provided by bones, tissue, ligaments and muscles. All bones become less dense with age and the jaw bone is no different. The weakened bone allows teeth to shift and loosen. Middle aged and older adults are also more susceptible to periodontal disease and inflammation of the gum which can further weaken bone and gums. Changes in your physical circumstances such as the onset of diabetes, thyroid issue and osteoporosis may influence the susceptibility to gum disease and in turn affect the quality of support for your teeth.

The ligaments that attach the teeth to the jaw bone break down with age and aren’t as effective at holding teeth in place. The lips and tongue muscles also weaken with age so they can’t hold teeth in place like they did in their younger years.   

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Our Bad Habits

Some people damage their teeth without realising it. Bruxism is grinding teeth, usually during sleep and the pressure of teeth pressing against each other can cause shifting. Nail biting can also contribute to tooth shifting.  

Everyday Living

But it’s also wear and tear. Think about how hard your teeth work. At least three times daily your teeth are biting and chewing their way through your food. Pregnancy hormones can increase the risk of gum inflammation and soften the periodontal ligaments making teeth prone to shifting. 

Retaining Teeth – The Long Journey

Think of your orthodontic journey in multiple parts. Stage one was any pre-braces treatment you may have had such as an expander, stage two was braces and stage three is retention. The final stage might be the longest but it’s the easiest. Retention is an insurance policy worth keeping up! Remember to think about how your teeth started out and that some problems are more likely to recur, so have a thorough discussion with your orthodontist about your individual circumstance- How will you measure success of your orthodontic treatment.

Category: Treatments & Care